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How do Children Experience Bereavement?

Very young children, perhaps below three years of age, have no understanding of death nor will they generally remember things in later life that have happened up to this point. Although somewhat immune from the emotional side, young children will suffer from separation if they spent a lot of time with the deceased person; this would be particularly profound if the deceased is one of the parents.

From around three until they are perhaps five or six there is a basic understanding but they struggle with the permanent nature of death; they consider that someone will be able to put this right sooner or later; that it must be a minor issue.

Recent generations have tended to attempt to put a distance between children in the family and the death. The approach can be to package the children off to school/friends; don’t let them see the parents being emotional; hide that there even is a funeral; make up some absurd stories as to where the deceased has gone; never discuss the subject again. Unfortunately the latter has been proven an unhealthy practice and one that has caused many psychological issues for such children in later life. In extreme cases, it can even lead to the children actually blaming themselves for the death. In trying to protect these young minds, more damage can actually be done. In general terms we recommend:-

  • Stating ‘name’ has not gone to sleep, gone away, gone anywhere else, s/he has died
  • Involving the child in your perception of religion and the afterlife (or conversely, the lack of it). It is highly likely your children will inherit your position on religion so why should this situation be any different? It is okay to say that ‘Grandad has gone to Heaven’ but not to imply he may be able to return
  • Children seeing your emotion and your support of other members of the family. They too may be emotional but they will feel strengthened by the empathy in mutual support
  • Children should go to funerals and if they want to, they should see the body in the chapel of rest. More than this, encourage them to take a small part in the funeral – can they write a message to ‘name’ which could be read out during the service on their behalf or even by them. This is very moving for all concerned but will also instil a memory for them of a goodbye to their relative
  • Always answer their questions honestly and enquire if they have others they have not asked
  • Give them something, perhaps a photo or something associated with the dead person, to remember their relative with. Watch for changes in behaviour as time goes by. Continue to talk about the person who has died, even if this is upsetting, and involve the child in the discussion. ‘Do you miss ‘name’? We all do terribly.’
  • Ensure the child’s teacher is well informed of developments.

As we well know, children often surprise us with how much they understand. The problem with shutting them out of bereavement is that when something is not explained to them, their minds fill in the gaps with how they perceive it at the time. More often than not, they will get this wrong and in the worst scenarios will perceive they are somehow to blame because people who are usually so open with them are not shut up behind closed doors and evasive.

Getting the message over to children is of course tricky and like any good parenting, requires great skill.

Children who are old enough to be computer literate and to converse with others should visit a web site set up by Cruise Bereavement Care specifically for children. The web site has a number of resources and includes a message board where they can look for other children in similar situations for mutual support. Give them the space and privacy to do this; you can’t answer every question in their language.

June 2013 saw the launch of Mosaic's new website. Mosaic offers support to bereaved children and families throughout Dorset. Telephone (01258) 837071 or Email for further help and advice.